Tag Archives: fundraising

Growstuff: food gardening, open data and extreme programming the geek feminism way

In 2012, Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley founded Growstuff, a website and multi-purpose database for food-growers to track what they have planted and harvested and connect with other growers in their local area. Growstuff is now two years old and has launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund API development, which will help outside developers of tools like a harvesting calculator to show you how much money you save by growing food or emailed planting tips and reminders based on your location and climate.

Skud uses open source software and related technologies to effect social and environmental change. She lives in Ballarat, Victoria, where she works on a variety of open tech projects for social justice and sustainability. Skud and I have talked in the past about how Growstuff is among the projects that Geek Feminism contributors have built on principles we brought to and out of Geek Feminism, and I’m kicking off the second week of Growstuff’s fundraiser by asking her more about this.

Q. Which communities is Growstuff modelled on, and what principles has it inherited from them? In particular, how have Geek Feminism and other social justice communities and your work within them influenced Growstuff?

Growstuff open data campaign

Skud: When I started Growstuff, I’d been running Geek Feminism for about 3–4 years, and involved in a few other “women in open source” groups before that. This had led me to watch really closely as different open source communities worked on how to be welcoming and supportive, and to attract participants from different backgrounds and demographics. One thing I saw was that projects founded by women attracted women — no big surprise there I suppose! And, unsurprisingly, Growstuff has attracted a lot of women as developers: roughly half of the 40ish people who’ve made code contributions have been women, and we have lots who’ve volunteered for things like testing and data wrangling as well.

Initially we modeled Growstuff quite heavily on Dreamwidth, which has a majority of women. (Dreamwidth was one of the projects I focused on in my 2009 OSCON keynote, Standing Out in the Crowd.) I also took inspiration from the Agile software development movement.

Extreme Programming, which is the variant of Agile I grew up on, had a lot to say about having real conversations with people involved in the project, working at a sustainable pace, and using introspection to think about the process. I think some of the more recent versions of agile (like Scrum) have made it more business-friendly and, dare I say, macho. But to me, developing software the agile way is about working on the things that are most important, and about honouring each participant’s expertise and their time and energy they bring to the project. So Growstuff has a policy of working closely with our members, getting them involved in the project, and in some ways blurring the lines between tech/non-tech roles. Our choice not to use the term “users” is part of this; we use “members” instead because we feel like “users” distances the people who use Growstuff from the people building the code, and treats them more as consumers rather than collaborators.

Agile development methodologies are probably not what you were thinking about when you asked about social justice movements, but to me, my feminism and the way I work on projects are closely connected. I certainly find agile development (which I do with clients as well as on Growstuff) to be a more egalitarian way of working together than traditional/non-agile approaches.

Q. Your crowdfunding campaign will pay a developer, Frances Hocutt, to work on Growstuff’s API? Why is Growstuff moving towards a paid development model, at least in this case?

Growstuff's Lettuce crop page

Screenshot of Growstuff’s page for the Lettuce crop.

So far, Growstuff’s been built by volunteers. My work on other projects (mostly doing tech contracting for sustainability non-profits) has funded my work on Growstuff, and other volunteers have generally been funded by their own day jobs. Unfortunately, requiring people to volunteer their time not only means you’re relying on their rather variable availability, but those who are likely to have the most availability are generally relatively privileged. That means that the contributor pool will be demographically tilted towards those who happen to be the most affluent and time-rich. In the feminist tech community, we’ve been talking for a while now about labor issues in open source: Ashe Dryden’s The Ethics of Unpaid Labor and the OSS Community is important reading on the subject.

As a matter of principle, I want to be able to pay people to work on Growstuff. Maybe not all people all the time — it’s still an open source project, and our volunteer community is important to us — but I want our contributors to know that they’re not expected to go to extraordinary lengths without remuneration. That includes myself! I guess like many women I find it hard to ask for money for my own work, especially work for a “social good” that is so often undervalued and unpaid. It’s easier for me to ask for money on other people’s behalf.

Frances is exactly the sort of developer I want to work with on Growstuff. She’s come from a career in organic chemistry and switched to open tech. I got to know her through her co-founding Seattle Attic (a feminist hackerspace in Seattle, Washington), and through her Outreach Program for Women internship at the Wikimedia Foundation. By the time I met her I already knew she was a developer with a strong interest in community and collaborative projects, with the right combination of high level thinking, code, documentation and outreach. Her work developing “gold standards” for Wikimedia’s APIs (including the Wikidata API) seemed like a perfect lead-in to working on improving Growstuff’s APIs and helping people build things with them. When I heard she was looking for a short-term contract, I jumped at the chance to see if we could raise the money to pay her to work on Growstuff for a bit.

What principles and techniques could other software projects adopt from Growstuff? And how does Growstuff fit in — or rather, not fit in — to the current venture funded hypergrowth model of software companies?

We’re still trying to figure that out. Growstuff is structured as a sort of hybrid business/social enterprise: the website’s direct expenses are funded by memberships, while my work as Growstuff’s lead developer and organiser is funded indirectly by consulting on other projects. We don’t have any outside investment though we have received a couple of small grants and some support from a government startup program. We’re not seeking traditional VC investment, which makes us rather at odds with most of the “startup scene”, but I would much rather that Growstuff as a whole were funded by the community it serves, than by an external party or parties (investors, advertisers, etc) whose goals and values might be at odds with ours.

The bigger-picture answer, I guess, is that 21st century western-style capitalism increases inequality. The rich get phenomenally richer, and the rest of us get screwed over. If someone offered me the chance to get super rich off Growstuff at the expense of our members and community, I sincerely hope that I’d be able to resist that temptation. Though to be honest, I think Growstuff’s insistence on copyleft licensing and other choices we made early on (such as not to serve ads) mean that nobody’s likely to make that offer anyway. I’ve intentionally set Growstuff up to be more cooperative than capitalist. The trick is to figure out how to fairly support our workers under that model.

I think it depends a lot on our members: people are used to getting online services “for free” in return for their personal information and marketing data, which is used to make a handful of people very rich indeed. Are they going to be willing to resist that easy, attractive evil and become more equal partners in supporting and developing an online service for their/our mutual good? That’s what we still have to find out.

How is food gardening a part of your feminism? (Or feminism part of your food gardening?)

Photograph of Skud wearing a sunhat

Growstuff and Geek Feminism founder Alex Skud Bayley in her garden

I think the connection, for me, is through the idea of DIY — doing it yourself. My feminism is closely tied to my dubiousness about our current capitalist system. As I said, a system that concentrates wealth in a small segment of the population increases inequality. As businesses get bigger, our choices are fewer. I think growing your own food, even in a small way, is an important area of resistance: every pot of herbs on your windowsill means one less thing you buy from a giant supermarket chain. Incidentally, I feel the same way about building our own software and online communities! And I think that those who are least well served by the mainstream capitalist system — women, for instance, who are constantly bombarded by really screwed up messages about what we eat and how we feed our families, trying to sell us highly processed foods that ultimately benefit the companies that design and package them far more than they benefit us — have the most to gain from this.

How can Geek Feminism readers contribute to or support Growstuff?

Well, of course we have the crowdfunding campaign going on at present, to support Frances and myself as we work on Growstuff’s open API.

We’re always looking for people to join our community as contributors: testers, data mavens, coders, designers, writers, and more. Even just diving in to our discussions and weighing in on some of the ideas there helps us a lot — we’re always keen to hear from food-growers (including aspiring/potential ones) about what they’re looking for in Growstuff and how we can improve, or from people who’d like to use our data, to discuss what they have in mind and how we can support them.

Apart from that, just help us spread the word :)

More about Growstuff

You can learn more about Growstuff and its philosophy in the pitch video for the crowdfunding campaign (audio transcript follows):

Hi, I’m Alex Bayley. I write software and I grow vegetables in my backyard. I founded Growstuff in 2012.

More and more people are taking up veggie gardening all over the developed world, especially in cities. That means millions of new gardeners trying to eat and live more sustainably. People are growing food in their backyards, on balconies and in community gardens.

I started to grow my own food because I want to know where it comes from and that it hasn’t been grown with environmentally damaging fertilisers and pesticides. Like a lot of people these days, I worry about food that’s not local. The costs of transportation and the waste from overpackaged food are huge. I think it’s important that we have alternatives to the big supermarkets. And of course homegrown food just tastes so much better and it’s so much better for you.

Like most gardeners, I’m always searching online for information. Most of the growing advice I find isn’t suitable for my climate. I need local information, not something from halfway around the world.

Growstuff started when I met a guy called Federico from Mexico. He’s also a software developer and a permaculturist and he has trouble finding growing information for his local area. So he asked me if I knew of any open databases that had planting information about where to plant any kind of crop anywhere in the world.

We looked around and we couldn’t find anything. Some governments release open data, but it’s usually aimed at big farms. The stuff aimed at home gardeners was usually either just for one region or else the websites had really restrictive rules about what you could use the data for.

I’m a software developer so when I look at data I want to build things. If that data’s locked up where no one can use it that stifles innovation. Growstuff crowdsources information from veggie gardeners around the world. We gather data on what they plant, when and where they plant it, and how to grow it. We use this information to provide local planting advice back to our members and anyone who visits our site.

Growstuff is 100% open source and our data is also open. You can download it straight from our website and use it for any purpose, even commercially. But we want more people to use our data. We’re raising funds to improve our API which lets third party developers use Growstuff to build apps, mashups, tools, or to do research.

With your help, we’ll be creating a new version of our API with more features, building demos, and running workshops for developers. I’ve been working with open data since about 2007 and I think making food growing information freely available is one of the most important things we can do.

Whether you’re a gardener or a software developer or you just care about sustainable food please support Growstuff’s crowdfunding campaign.

Disclosures: in addition to working with Skud on the Geek Feminism project, I’ve worked with her when she was an advisor to the Ada Initiative, an AdaCamp staffer, and in several other capacities over many years.

What would a feminist payment/funding site look like?

We’ve had several discussions here over the years about what a feminist social network would look like, most notably Social Networking Requirements and The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted. In a similar vein, and in light of the recent problems with Gittip, I’d like to open discussion about what a feminist payment/funding site would look like — a feminist alternative to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, or to micropayment/ongoing support like Gittip or Patreon.

I’ll start:

  • The system helps bring the most marginalised and most in need to the forefront, rather than the most popular.
  • Policies that don’t automatically shut down accounts for “offensive” content when those accounts are, for example, documenting abuse or educating about sexuality.
  • It doesn’t require you to create a video to launch a campaign (pet peeve! but see Photography on the GF wiki for some ways in which photos/video can lead to harassment for marginalised people).

For further background/points of discussion, some resources around this are starting to form on the GF wiki. See for example:

Ideas, thoughts? What payment/fundraising needs do you have in regard to feminist/activist work?

Why I’m ending my short experiment with Gittip, or: why we can’t have nice things, part 2,039

This is a guest post by Sky Croeser, which originally appeared on her blog.

I love doing teaching and research, but I also want to be doing more to engage and build communities outside of academia. Recently, I decided to start experimenting with Gittip as a way to support that. Gittip “is a way to give small weekly cash gifts to people you love and are inspired by. Gifts are weekly. The intention is for people to depend on money received through Gittip in order to pay their bills, and bills are recurring.” I like the idea, and I liked that the ‘top receivers’ shown on the front page included several activists working on diversity issues, which suggested that it wasn’t just a tool for programmers to use, and that it’s possible to make a decent (if far from extravagant) income doing public outreach and community-building work.

Then, someone on Hacker News criticised the site for supporting people who ‘yell on Twitter and demonize men’, saying the site had become ‘a joke dominated by professional victims’. Sadly, this is not unexpected. The level of daily vitriol directed at women who actively address sexism in tech culture (and in other spaces) is astounding. What was unfortunately is that Chad Whitacre, founder of Gittip, responded this comment by thanking the poster for his feedback.

When people called Whitacre out on this, he responded by saying that he was talking about the part of the comment that referred to the how ‘leaderboards’ were displayed: he was agreeing that perhaps the front page on Gittip shouldn’t focus so heavily on those who give and receive the most funds. I was hopeful that he’d follow this up with a simple and unequivocal statement along the lines of, “Of course we want diversity activists using Gittip! This is an excellent use for the tool and it’s important that we support them.”

Instead, Whitacre’s responses have both tacitly and explicitly supported the ongoing harassment that many of Gittip’s (previous) top users, including Shanley, Ashe Dryden, and Nóirín Plunkett face. Tacitly, by thanking misogynists for their feedback and not speaking up against misogyny, Whitacre supports a culture of harassment that pushes women out of geek communities:

gittippattingHNonthebackExplicitly, Whitacre has contributed to the ongoing harassment that women working on diversity issues in geek communities face by writing a blog post explicitly attacking Shanley, particularly for the tone of her criticisms of him. I am not going to link to the blog post. And just in case anyone wants to say that Whitacre would have responded better if only someone had explained it to him more politely, it’s clear that other people have been approaching these discussions in a gentler way, and haven’t managed to shift Whitacre’s approach. Also see Julie Pagano’s email to Whitacre.

In response to this, many of Gittip’s users have been leaving or are going to leave, including Shanley, Ashe Dryden, Steve Klabnik, Skud and probably many others that I’ve missed. For many, this comes at a huge cost: people like Ashe Dryden have spent a long time building up their support base on Gittip, and get a significant proportion of their income from the tool. This isn’t a decision taken lightly.

This is what builds homogenous communities. When privileged people fail to stand up for marginalised groups within their communities, those groups eventually understand that they’re not welcome and won’t be supported and leave. Initial shifts towards diversity are rapidly undone.

I’ve shut down my account, too. I don’t want to work to build support through a platform where key communities members are not only unwilling to support their top users, but are also willing to actively attack them.

There’s now a page up about this on the Geek Feminism Wiki: Gittip crisis. I’m hoping that in coming days there’ll also be resources compiled around alternatives to Gittip, and about how people can support people who’ve stopped using Gittip.

Editor’s note: such pages are welcome on the wiki, for existing ones, see: Gittip transfers for users who have transferred elsewhere, Fundraising mechanisms for activists and a (not yet filled out) Feminist reviews of payment processors. All pages are in early draft, please help out by filling them in and adding related pages.

Seattle Attic logo

Seattle Attic and me: community, compassion, and power-with

This is a guest post by Frances Hocutt. Frances is the founding president of the Seattle Attic Community Workshop, Seattle’s first feminist hackerspace/makerspace. She prefers elegance in her science and effectiveness in her art and is happiest when drawing on as many disciplines as she can. Frances’s current passion is helping others find the space, tools, and community that they need to make their world fit them better. Between her science and her skill at ancient technology, she considers herself an integral part of any postapocalyptic team.

TL;DR: Check out Seattle Attic’s Indiegogo campaign.

2013 has been a hell of a year for me. I’ve lost family; I’ve ended or reshaped several important personal and professional relationships; I’ve begun to reconsider my career path based on some truly unfortunate experiences in my current academic department. And with all that, it’s been the most personally and professionally rewarding year I’ve lived so far.

Why? I wanted to turn some of my frustrations into positive change and started the Seattle Attic Community Workshop, the first of the new West Coast feminist hackerspaces. I can  and will  talk about our vision for the space and specifics on how we are moving toward it. First, though, I’m going to talk about how my work with the Attic has changed me and why I love this space so much.

I think it’s the first space — at least, the first formal community — that I’ve been able to bring all of myself into without fear of rejection. I can be the least censored public version of myself. I’m not afraid I’ll be judged for the choices I make to deal with the flawed systems we all live in, and I’m not afraid that the real harm those systems do will be waved away in the process. The support there helps me grow into the self I want to be: gutsy, strong, curious, creative, knowledgeable, skilled, and compassionate. I want to create. I want to learn. I want to teach. At the Attic, I can ask the basic questions that let me learn without being judged for not knowing already. And I’m not the only one who’s restarted work on projects that had been on hold for months and years.

It’s what I wish working at a start-up — or a new lab — were like. If I ever do start a company, I’ll be drawing on my organizational experiences here. We consciously notice our social dynamics. We learn from movements’ prior experiences. We explicitly discuss burnout and balance responsibilities so that the work gets done and no one feels like they have to do it all. We value respect and kindness over displays of superiority — disagreements don’t define our worth as individuals, we aren’t afraid to be judged when we ask questions, and we’re not ashamed of our interests.

As we started this, I started to lead our earlier meetings and eventually was formally chosen as president. I discovered that I do have a talent for leadership — and here, I don’t have to keep my guard up or worry that my femaleness or my queerness will undermine it. I encouraged little things that build community; our meetings include a “rant and squee” section, one part consciousness-raising group, one part fannishness, one part show-and-tell, as well as a “good and welfare” section that I nabbed from my academic student employee union‘s meetings. Other members have also called me on my mistakes and failings and with their support, I’ve turned those around and done better.

This space and its members have also been a base of support for my other activism. It’s why one of our members entered the tech field this year. It’s a huge part of why I feel secure enough to consider leaving science completely. It’s given me the support I needed to be able to share my reasons why and is why I plan to do my best to make a change in my department and not keep my head down. None of this is easy, but now it’s possible.

So, this is a love letter of a sort to the Attic and the people who comprise it. Many of my best experiences this year have been through the Attic or through the amazing women I’ve met and worked with there. After this year it would be easy for me to leave science completely and geek from the edges, or to stay and become more and more angry and brittle. That’s not what’s happened. The acceptance, encouragement, and compassionate strength I’ve found from my fellow Attic members have helped make me into the person I want to be. I look around and see how I can be strong without being brittle. I’ve been shaped by my painful experiences this year; I’m being tempered by the kindness and utter acceptance the Attic’s showed me.

Right now, Seattle Attic is raising money so that we can build on the beginning we’ve made and expand our space and our programs. We want to make this space sustainable, and we want to provide enough resources that other makerspaces can do the same. If you want to help us continue to make our vision real, you can contribute to our fundraiser, or simply spread the word and tell a handful of your friends why this feminist makerspace excites you, personally. If you’re local or visiting, come to one of our open houses, workshops, or events — we would love to meet you.

Increasing diversity in tech

This is a guest post by Ashe Dryden, a programmer and conference organizer living in Madison, WI. She is passionate about increasing diversity within the tech community.

As a queer woman programmer, it’s not difficulty to see the lack of diversity in the tech industry. In the past 12 years I’ve worked with only one other woman and have never worked with any people of color. Conferences and other events are sadly not much better. I’ve experienced my fair share of discrimination and harassment and have worked on raising awareness around these all of these issues because they are connected.

Historically, I’ve spoken about the intersection of the tech industry and social justice; I’ve educated those with power and privilege in our communities about intersectionality, discrimination, and bias. I’d spent the majority of my time attempting to help people understand the issues affecting marginalized people within the industry, but I was growing fatigued of progress that felt like a small drop in the bucket. One-on-one and 101 education require a lot of patience and time; I needed a way to scale up my efforts.

It wasn’t until last fall when a Ruby conference was cancelled after its homogeneity that I decided to do more about it. I decided to shift my focus slightly to community and conference organizers, businesses and hiring managers, while remaining accessible to the community as a whole. This would allow me to connect with people that have the amount of power to begin enacting change immediately and influencing the people below them. It’s like a pyramid scheme, but for good instead of evil!

What followed were months of various projects, including a month’s worth of google hangouts with conference organizers that resulted in one of my more popular resources on increasing diversity at conferences. Following that, I began contacting every new programming or design conference I came across and offered to do hangouts with them to talk about things like codes of conduct, inclusive language in their marketing materials, accessible venues, t-shirts for people of all genders and body types, as well as offering scholarships. The next project was a series of about 100 interviews with businesses, hiring managers, and marginalized people to find out why companies in our industry aren’t as diverse as they should be. What I’d expected to be a blog post turned into a full length book that provides a toolkit for businesses to change their culture, outreach, and hiring processes to prepare for and increase lasting diversity. The book is currently in progress and will be released soon.

Meanwhile, I was still writing and speaking online quite a bit about what could be done to increase diversity through attraction, access, and retention. I worked to highlight the efforts of organizations that taught girls, women, people of color, and other marginalized people how to program. I spoke with people about their frustrations and connected them to people that could help them change their communities. I directed attention and donations toward the work that non-profits like the Ada Initiative and NCWiT were doing.

By this point, conferences had started reaching out to me asking if I would be interested in speaking, so I started doing that as well. Before I knew it, more and more of my time was being dedicated toward education and outreach work and less toward my paying client work. Since many conferences can’t afford to cover travel expenses for speakers, I was in a tight spot. I wanted to continue the speaking I was doing; after all, many people won’t seek out this information on their own if they don’t believe it affects them. I found that meeting people where they were at, giving them both scientific research and anecdotes I’d heard from my hundreds of interviews and my own personal experiences were what was helping to shift the attitudes of a lot of people. Being able to have these conversations with them face-to-face made it more accessible for them to ask questions they wouldn’t have otherwise. But if I was doing far less client work, how could I afford all of this travel?

Recently a conference organizer suggested I put together an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for travel. The money would also allow me to create a
resource site that could help people continue to learn about the issues and what they and organizations they belong to can do to encourage positive change.

Near immediately I began receiving donations and being contacted about what I do. While the majority of feedback has been positive, thoughtful, and energizing, I’ve also experienced a fair share of the negative. I’ve received death and rape threats, harassment both on my campaign as well as on my blog, and comments about my appearance and worth. It’s sad to feel that this is to be expected from anyone engaging in this movement, but I know this is a symptom of a problem we’re trying to solve.

Overall, I’ve been overwhelmed with the response I’ve gotten. People have been donating for some of my silly perks, like choosing my hair color for a month or a personalized vine mini-movie on a topic of their choosing. I raised the amount I was asking for within 12 hours and doubled that within 36. People began asking if I had stretch goals and I had to think bigger than I thought I’d have to. Some friends and I came up with the idea of putting together a video series on different aspects of diversity in tech. Our larger goal is to raise enough to put on a diversity summit that would bring together activists, educators, businesses, conference organizers, and other community members to find ways to integrate our efforts better and make the movement more visible.

I would love to see the campaign reach this larger stretch goal; I’ve been a conference organizer for 10 years and it would be great to have an event that could contribute so much to the progress of equality in the industry.

If you or your organization are interested in contributing, you can do so on indiegogo.

Lastly, I’d like to continue this work through the employment of a company within the industry. I’m still searching for a company that is as passionate about this as I am. A good fit that would allow me to write, speak, and teach about the importance of diversity, as well as offering me time to work on open source software and helping more marginalized people to contribute to OSS as well. You can contact me about opportunities at ashedryden@gmail.com.

Photograph of Martha Chumo using a laptop

Martha Chumo: founding Nairobi Dev School

Martha Chumo, a 19 year old woman living in Nairobi, Kenya, is raising funds for a Nairobi Dev School She’s hoping to raise $50,000, allowing the school to run for nearly a year.

Martha previously raised $5000 to attend Hacker School in New York City but was denied a US visa on the grounds that she could not, as single young woman, show sufficient ties to Kenya to prove she intended to return. But immigration decisions haven’t stopped her, and she’s moved on to building hacker skills in East Africa. I interviewed Martha about herself and the Nairobi Dev School project.

Photograph of Martha Chumo using a laptop

Martha Chumo

Tell us more about yourself: your schooling, work, hobbies, family, friends, whatever you’d like to share.

I consider myself an autodidact with a wide range of interests. Most of my “schooling” in programming, philosophy, languages, writing has been pretty informal. I’ve learnt using materials online, and books. Codecademy and Treehouse are two sites that have been very resourceful in my self-learning in programming :) I am yet to attend a school for developers – One coming to Nairobi soon, and I can’t wait for that! ;)

I am not sure if I have any hobbies, but I have interests in other fields! When not coding, I am usually reading a book on history or philosophy, learning a language (programming language or human ;), trying to improve my guitar playing skills, writing a book titled “Learn how to learn”, making noise about something I am passionate about, or jogging around. I am really
into learning! I believe that be the programmer, the writer, the poet, the philosopher, the Mathematician, and any other thing I so desire!

I have diverse friends due to my diverse interests – from fellow geeks working on open source software to musicians I want to start a band with. ;)

What is it like being a hacker in Nairobi? Who is in your community and what do you work on?

It’s a lot of fun, and work being a hacker in Nairobi. Tech is a young field here, so there is a lot (perhaps too many ;) of options on what to build for East Africa. At the moment, I am working on an online learning platform to improve eLearning. I cannot resist the temptation of making myself and others better learners. :)

My community here is mainly the user groups I am part of, most notably, Ruby user group, Google Developer Group, BlackBerry Developer Group, and MongoDB User Group. These are the guys I learn with, build (and break) stuff with, hang out and have a laugh with. They are also the people helping me set up Nairobi dev School! :)

Why did you decide to raise funds for the Nairobi Dev School?

I decided to raise funds for the school because I know I’m not the only one who is passionate about becoming a better programmer. I knew I will get the support of other programmers who understand the importance of providing learning opportunities to people in East Africa. I was not wrong about this! I have received a lot of support from like-minds! :)

The other reason is that I actually need the money to set up the school! ;)

What will the Nairobi Dev School be like? How does it compare to Hacker School, or to a university program?

Nairobi dev School is similar to Hacker School in that the students will be becoming better programmers. It’ll be, however, a little different in it’s structure. After doing some research and consulting, we decided that Nairobi developer School should be more of a beginner’s program. We are going to use the Jumpstart Lab curriculum in our training. We shall also have resident and remote developer mentors to guide the students as they learn.

Who else is involved in the Nairobi Dev School within Kenya and East Africa? Tell us about them.

Nairobi Developer School’s community is slowly growing. The BlackBerry Developer Community in Kenya is helping us set up, and looking into ways of assisting. East African Developers have joined in as mentors. Other Kenya writers — such as a group supporting women in tech and innovation in Africa — and entrepreneurs are also on board supporting Nairobi developer School.
This is a great response in such a short time! :)

Do you have volunteers from outside East Africa to become mentors? Who are they?

We do have volunteers outside East Africa willing to becoming mentors, which is amazing considering it’s been a couple of weeks since the campaign started. I have been working on getting mentors with developers from a number of companies, such as devbootcamp, Jumpstart lab, Pivital labs, ThoughttWorks and Codecademy. We are still working on getting more mentors on board. Our website will be up pretty soon, and more mentors will be able to sign up! :)

You can follow Martha on her blog and on Twitter. At the time of writing, the fundraiser for the Nairobi Dev School is still over $46,000 short of its goal. You can donate to the Nairobi Dev School campaign on Indiegogo.

A closeup photograph of an open lipstick, with a blurry laptop in the background (by Aih)

Re-post: The Ladycoders Project, Interviewing and Career Advice

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on August 15, 2012.

This post originally appeared on Addie’s blog. LadyCoders responded to criticism of their (now completed) Kickstarter campaign and resulting program on August 17: Responses to the Kickstarter Campaign: Men Aren’t The Enemy.

Last fall, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and had a transformative experience. Over those two days of sessions and networking, I felt like I reconnected with every aspect of myself that has existed throughout my 12 years writing code, and this had a way of healing some old career wounds in a way nothing else really has. GHC is interesting because it brings together women from all stages of the computing pipeline – academics, industry veterans and novices alike, and students – so many students.

Many of the conference’s sessions focused on career development, and rightly so. Many of the students in attendance were on the cusp of starting their careers in industry, and the conference provided some crucial guidance. Some sessions were tuned to issues female developers tend to grapple with more than male developers – Impostor Syndrome and other crises of low confidence, for instance. In one of the most personally powerful moments of the conference, the woman who was my only female teammate on a team of 30+ men in my first job out of college sat down next to me during a “Confidence Building Tricks” session. This woman has been my role model both personally and professionally in the six years since I met her, and this was the first time I’d seen her since leaving that job. At the behest of the workshop organizers, she turned to me and bragged, “I run the Internet” (and she does!) in her best Schwarzenegger voice, and I felt elated.

The final session I attended at GHC involved an informal, rotating panel of women in industry giving career advice to women just about to launch their careers. Everybody had different stories, and the hour of discussion that followed was really eye-opening. I learned that I hadn’t been the only person who’d cried during my first job interview. I learned that I wasn’t the only person to find my college’s career center training to be mostly insufficient when it came to technical interviewing, because technical interviews often reduce a person to their skills and can feel very dehumanizing when you’ve been trained to expect something entirely different. I heard about a variety of industry experiences very different from my own, and reconnected with the nervousness that is standing on the cusp of the unknown as a college graduate-to-be.

After the session, one of the college-age women pulled me aside and said she wanted more advice about interviewing, specifically technical interviews. I reiterated that she should take traditional interview training with a grain of salt, because technical interviews rely so heavily on problem-solving and proving technical skill. I recommended that she investigate the wide array of websites that post sample technical interview questions and problems to solve, and to practice working through the solutions to those problems not only on her own but out loud and with others – to get comfortable “working on the whiteboard”. I told her that the technical content in interviews varies substantially depending on the company – and even the interviewer!, and that she should expect to occasionally deal with problems that are intentionally difficult and not easy to solve. I wrapped up by telling her that it’s easy to feel discouraged and frustrated with oneself after dealing with the rigor of some technical interviews, but that’s a normal response and to not think she wasn’t cut out for this if she has a bad interview or practice session. Once you get the hang of it, I said, technical interviews can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grace Hopper conference was interacting with women who approached the “gender in tech” issue from a different angle than me. Many of the goodies in the Expo Hall celebrated being a coder in the same breath as stereotypical girliness in a way that I find quite problematic. But I also saw college women who loved the problematic swag and was reminded that, a decade ago, seizing upon my girliness as part of my identity as developer was an act of rebellion.

I squirmed when women – especially industry women, and especially those on stage, in panels – made gender essentialist claims (implying that women were superior in certain skilled areas). I wished these women wouldn’t make such claims in front of a room full of students who looked to them as authorities, but I also remembered the times in my past where cheap gender essentialism helped me feel a lot better during times of low confidence.

When I explored the discomfort that surfaced while witnessing others coping with the women-in-tech issue in ways I found problematic, I saw so much of my younger, less experienced self. I empathized strongly with the coping mechanisms we all employ to make the difficult journey as a female or other minority developer. Like all coping mechanisms, some work better than others. One of the big questions I grappled with in light of this, and still grapple with, is this: being well-versed in women-in-tech issues is something that requires education and lived experience just like any other specialty. As we’re learning, we’re going to accidentally hurt people along the way. How do we correct problematic behavior when we see it, without alienating? How do we learn, and encourage participation, along all steps of our journey, and cope with the inevitable cases where someone says something that isn’t quite clueful and steps on some toes?

I’m reminded of all of this thanks to a discussion popping up in several of my social circles lately regarding the Ladycoders Project, a (now fully-funded) Kickstarter campaign and upcoming career-development seminar for women in technical careers. After learning about this project, most of the women in tech that I know were initially jazzed: we all love the idea of empowering women to succeed in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. Every female developer has a thing or two she’s learned the hard way that she would have preferred to see in a seminar like this one. Most of the initial discussion I saw was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

It didn’t take long, though, before some folks started investigating the Ladycoders site and found some content that disturbed them. That “good” and “bad” mock interview in the Kickstarter video didn’t sit right. The seminar opens with a session called “Skin Deep”, which focuses specifically on appearance. The outline to the “Certifications and Skills” session includes a bullet point on “why you have to be qualitatively better” (presumably, than your male peers). There’s language in the Kickstarter’s FAQ which has made LGBTQ individuals – who face many of the same issues (and more!) in industry as cisgendered women – uneasy. But the session that sticks out the most (and the worst) is “Men Aren’t the Enemy”, which posits:

Men don’t deliberately keep us out; it’s our job (for now) to be easily integrated into an all-male team, nonthreatening, and hyperskilled

This statement has (rightly) made many women in industry quite angry, myself included. Geek Feminism’s Timeline of Incidents catalogs an ever-growing list of sexist events across communities. People have (and will continue to) say that these exclusionary practices aren’t a “deliberate” attempt to keep women out, but anybody who has experienced the isolating chill of exclusionary behavior understands that it is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, and it does keep women out. (Further reading: Intent is Not Magic.) The rest of the sentence suggests a path of least resistance that relies heavily on performing stereotypical gendered behavior; I’m not the only person who detects a strong whiff of victim blaming in all of it.

Many of us who have been discussing this project feel incredibly torn here: we have serious problems with some of the content on the Ladycoders site, but we also think the project has an excellent goal. There’s a lot of good advice in the session outlines as well – in particular, I liked seeing bits about “the myth of the one-page resume” and building up a public code repository on a site like GitHub. There’s also emphasis on practicing whiteboard exercises and mock technical interviews. Since this project is just getting off the ground – the seminar hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know how the problematic stuff in the session outlines will translate to in-person education; the only information we can go from is what’s provided by the website and the Kickstarter. The problematic content inspires far more questions than answers.

Some of us are also torn because of a discussion a few weeks ago following a post called “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”; Skud’s post summarizes the scope of the discussion quite well. We’re still grappling with some difficult questions: if our feminism really isn’t about setting rules or hoops to jump through, how do we skillfully engage with problematic content? How do we take a stance on something when we all come from different perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds? How do we call out ignorant or hurtful statements while still showing compassion? While Ladycoders doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a feminist project, its goals (to increase the participation and representation of women in industry) match those of [geek] feminists. As individuals, we all draw our lines in different places when it comes to problematic content and behavior.

I can only speak for myself here. I think the problematic content in the Ladycoders outline has the potential to do tremendous harm, and ultimately drive women away from industry by delivering misleading information. That’s my beef with it.

Circling back to Grace Hopper here for a moment, I had the same feeling when I came out of Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote address. As I’ve said before, I really have trouble with Sandberg’s “inspiring” speeches to women because she places so much emphasis on women’s ambition and hard work, as if every obstacle constructed by institutional sexism can be overcome just by working a little harder or shedding a bit more blood. As a young person it is enormously empowering to feel like what’s possible is solely within the realm of one’s imagination and willpower. And there is some truth to that. But there are also so many systems at play, and when it comes to being a minority in any field, those systems can work very strongly against us.

The problem with not acknowledging the oppressive influence of the system in one’s approach is that it can be utterly heartbreaking once the system gets in the way. If I’ve been taught that my success in industry just comes down to my agreeability, my ambition, my skillfulness in not threatening my male peers – what happens when the problems that such behavior meant to solve arise anyhow? How do I cope in that situation – do I blame myself? Do I decide I’m just not cut out for this, and quit? What information could I have received about these inevitable obstacles that could have fostered resilience?

This is what I’m worried about when I hear Sandberg speak, or read about Ladycoders encouraging me to do all the work to integrate with my all-male team. It just doesn’t match up with the reality that I’ve lived. In fact, it would require an inhuman amount of energy and the emotional fortitude of a robot. One approach does not fit all situations.

I’d like to pivot back to the advice I gave that college student back at GHC, and some general sentiments about my own experience with interviewing and otherwise getting by in industry. There’s a lot we can do as developers to better ourselves – to make ourselves better candidates for a job, and outstanding employees once we’re on the job. But the onus shouldn’t just be on us. The tech industry is very young, and there are a lot of things it’s not doing well either. I have major criticisms about the general trend of software companies hiring for a very specific set of skills and experience rather than aptitude, and being unwilling to invest significant resources in training: I firmly believe this is damaging for all parties, and allows for the continued glorification of the stereotypical hacker type who spends all of their time on code, disadvantaging developers who prefer more balance. Peter Cappelli has been writing some great pieces about the skills gap myth that tie into his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It“. It encourages me to see a voice putting pressure on institutions instead of individuals for once. Needless to say, I have the same opinions about organizations with gender diversity issues: it is the organization’s job to proactively make themselves appealing to people of all identities; if the responsibility has been placed on the token person in that diverse group to point out what you’re doing wrong, you’re not doing it right. We absolutely need to work on improving ourselves as candidates and employees, but the pressure on systems and institutions to fix themselves up could be so much stronger, and that’s where my passion lies.

Personally, I love talking about interviews and general career advice. There’s a lot of things I’ve gotten right and many more I’ve gotten wrong. I’m an excellent interviewer, and getting a job has never been difficult for me. I’ve still had some interviews that I would have conducted differently if given the chance to do them again. On the job, things have been a bit more challenging for me – I’ve spent more time as a “new employee” than not, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at being “new”. I’m not very good at asking lots of questions in lieu of reading documentation, motivating myself to jump into a foreign code base, or warming up to a new development team. I’d like to be a more focused and organized worker, and I’d like to spend more time on skill development than I currently do. So I have plenty that I’m still working on.

I asked some other female developers about their experiences interviewing women, and learned some interesting things. I want to wrap this up by passing on some advice I think is useful and trends women-or-minority-specific, but a bit more constructive than the problematic bits in the Ladycoders outline.

  • Learn about terms like Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat, and microaggressions as soon as possible. It’s normal to encounter one, if not all, of these at some point. Being able to put a name to that uncomfortable feeling will help you feel less alone in your experience, and will help you communicate your needs more precisely.
  • The most important component of a technical interview is being able to problem-solve on your feet. Try doing this with both easy and hard problems; examine the way you react when you don’t know how to solve a problem, and consider more constructive ways to engage with it. Asking for clarification or additional information is totally okay. Give as much information as possible while you’re thinking through an answer; it’s okay to say “I know this isn’t the optimal solution, but here’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Technical interviews can actually be a whole lot of fun once you get the hang of these things.
  • One of the benefits of switching jobs regularly is more frequent interview experience. If you’re looking for a new job after a few years away from interviewing, realize that you’ll probably be a bit less polished. Take some time to review potential interview questions and practice with a friend. I know some people that regularly interview between jobs even if they aren’t actually looking; this doesn’t work for everybody, but it does help the practice stay fresh.
  • Appearance and personality mean so much less during a technical interview than they do any other interview, and this can be disorienting for people who have been trained on non-technical interviews. I typically interview in jeans and a sweater (and also a nose ring and candy-colored hair – YMMV, but this hasn’t been a problem for me), and I incorporate things like my motivations and values into my narrative about my career history, technologies I’ve worked on, etc. With time, you’ll find ways to make responses to questions about past experience both informative and personally insightful.
  • Yes, women tend to express less confidence and more doubt in their abilities. I am absolutely one of those folks. At the same time, I’ve found most interviewers find it refreshing that I’m admitting what I don’t know instead of pretending that I have everything figured out, since so many other interviews can feel like trying to smoke out the candidates who are faking their expertise (an unfortunate side effect of this industry’s stereotypically hyper-masculine culture: braggadocio). I try to reframe my deficits in a positive way: “I haven’t worked with that – but I’d like to learn it,” or “That’s not in my skillset, but given my experience with x, I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.” There is a way to be honest about one’s limitations while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Being personable in a technical interview is really about showing excitement and passion for a particular technical topic or field of study; figure out what you’re enthusiastic about ahead of time and feeling engaged with your interviewer will be a lot easier. When you’re researching the company you’re interviewing, what aspects of their work seem the most interesting to you?
  • Interviews are a two-way street. You are always interviewing the company, too. If they do something that doesn’t impress you, that’s important data and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t be so fixated on your own performance that you miss warning signs. Think about what you’ve liked and didn’t like about past jobs you’ve worked, and questions you could have asked to get information about those components of the job in the interview. Sometimes your mind will go blank when an interviewer asks if you have any questions – if you know this happens to you, come with a list!
  • Curate your online presence. If you have a unique-to-the-Internet full name like me, this is a lesson you learned a long time ago – we of the unique names are really easy to find on Google (right down to the Tamagotchi haiku I wrote as a 13-year-old that wasn’t really a haiku). Make sure you have a web presence that conveys an accurate picture of who you are both as a developer and an individual. Personally, it’s important to me that my web presence is authentic and not sterile – think of how you want to present yourself to someone doing a web search on your name in a variety of career contexts (future employer, future coworker, collaborator on an open source project, peer in your local tech community, etc.), and decide what you can do to get yourself to that point. (This was a big topic at GHC and I think it’s going to become increasingly important. You can use your presence on the Internet to your advantage!)
  • Talking about past negative experiences is a tricky road, but if you avoid the issue altogether in interviews, don’t be surprised if those issues re-emerge after you get the job. This is the one I’m doing the most work with right now. I’ve been harassed and bullied on the job, so now I ask about company harassment policies in interviews; I’ve had neglectful managers and a void of performance feedback, so I ask about the frequency of performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, and the organization’s managerial philosophy. The big one that I’ve just started doing – and it scares me a lot – is being public about my priorities as a geek feminist and my interest in improving experiences for minorities in tech while I’m in an interview. I’ve realized that I’m no longer willing to work for companies that haven’t even done the most basic research on the issues facing women in tech, so if they react poorly to my disclosure, that’s important data. Yes, this has terrified me, but so far it’s led to positive results.  I’m still figuring out the right questions to ask in that department, and I’m learning as I go.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links that have emerged while my peers have been discussing Ladycoders and constructive career advice for tech minorities.

A closeup photograph of an open lipstick, with a blurry laptop in the background (by Aih)

The Ladycoders Project, Interviewing and Career Advice

This is a guest post by Addie. Addie is a software engineer specializing in web applications in the Portland, OR area. She’s actively involved in the Portland tech community, including the local women-in-tech group Code N Splode.

This post originally appeared on her blog.

Last fall, I attended the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) and had a transformative experience. Over those two days of sessions and networking, I felt like I reconnected with every aspect of myself that has existed throughout my 12 years writing code, and this had a way of healing some old career wounds in a way nothing else really has. GHC is interesting because it brings together women from all stages of the computing pipeline – academics, industry veterans and novices alike, and students – so many students.

Many of the conference’s sessions focused on career development, and rightly so. Many of the students in attendance were on the cusp of starting their careers in industry, and the conference provided some crucial guidance. Some sessions were tuned to issues female developers tend to grapple with more than male developers – Impostor Syndrome and other crises of low confidence, for instance. In one of the most personally powerful moments of the conference, the woman who was my only female teammate on a team of 30+ men in my first job out of college sat down next to me during a “Confidence Building Tricks” session. This woman has been my role model both personally and professionally in the six years since I met her, and this was the first time I’d seen her since leaving that job. At the behest of the workshop organizers, she turned to me and bragged, “I run the Internet” (and she does!) in her best Schwarzenegger voice, and I felt elated.

The final session I attended at GHC involved an informal, rotating panel of women in industry giving career advice to women just about to launch their careers. Everybody had different stories, and the hour of discussion that followed was really eye-opening. I learned that I hadn’t been the only person who’d cried during my first job interview. I learned that I wasn’t the only person to find my college’s career center training to be mostly insufficient when it came to technical interviewing, because technical interviews often reduce a person to their skills and can feel very dehumanizing when you’ve been trained to expect something entirely different. I heard about a variety of industry experiences very different from my own, and reconnected with the nervousness that is standing on the cusp of the unknown as a college graduate-to-be.

After the session, one of the college-age women pulled me aside and said she wanted more advice about interviewing, specifically technical interviews. I reiterated that she should take traditional interview training with a grain of salt, because technical interviews rely so heavily on problem-solving and proving technical skill. I recommended that she investigate the wide array of websites that post sample technical interview questions and problems to solve, and to practice working through the solutions to those problems not only on her own but out loud and with others – to get comfortable “working on the whiteboard”. I told her that the technical content in interviews varies substantially depending on the company – and even the interviewer!, and that she should expect to occasionally deal with problems that are intentionally difficult and not easy to solve. I wrapped up by telling her that it’s easy to feel discouraged and frustrated with oneself after dealing with the rigor of some technical interviews, but that’s a normal response and to not think she wasn’t cut out for this if she has a bad interview or practice session. Once you get the hang of it, I said, technical interviews can actually be a lot of fun.

One of the most difficult aspects of the Grace Hopper conference was interacting with women who approached the “gender in tech” issue from a different angle than me. Many of the goodies in the Expo Hall celebrated being a coder in the same breath as stereotypical girliness in a way that I find quite problematic. But I also saw college women who loved the problematic swag and was reminded that, a decade ago, seizing upon my girliness as part of my identity as developer was an act of rebellion.

I squirmed when women – especially industry women, and especially those on stage, in panels – made gender essentialist claims (implying that women were superior in certain skilled areas). I wished these women wouldn’t make such claims in front of a room full of students who looked to them as authorities, but I also remembered the times in my past where cheap gender essentialism helped me feel a lot better during times of low confidence.

When I explored the discomfort that surfaced while witnessing others coping with the women-in-tech issue in ways I found problematic, I saw so much of my younger, less experienced self. I empathized strongly with the coping mechanisms we all employ to make the difficult journey as a female or other minority developer. Like all coping mechanisms, some work better than others. One of the big questions I grappled with in light of this, and still grapple with, is this: being well-versed in women-in-tech issues is something that requires education and lived experience just like any other specialty. As we’re learning, we’re going to accidentally hurt people along the way. How do we correct problematic behavior when we see it, without alienating? How do we learn, and encourage participation, along all steps of our journey, and cope with the inevitable cases where someone says something that isn’t quite clueful and steps on some toes?

I’m reminded of all of this thanks to a discussion popping up in several of my social circles lately regarding the Ladycoders Project, a (now fully-funded) Kickstarter campaign and upcoming career-development seminar for women in technical careers. After learning about this project, most of the women in tech that I know were initially jazzed: we all love the idea of empowering women to succeed in an industry that doesn’t make it easy. Every female developer has a thing or two she’s learned the hard way that she would have preferred to see in a seminar like this one. Most of the initial discussion I saw was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

It didn’t take long, though, before some folks started investigating the Ladycoders site and found some content that disturbed them. That “good” and “bad” mock interview in the Kickstarter video didn’t sit right. The seminar opens with a session called “Skin Deep”, which focuses specifically on appearance. The outline to the “Certifications and Skills” session includes a bullet point on “why you have to be qualitatively better” (presumably, than your male peers). There’s language in the Kickstarter’s FAQ which has made LGBTQ individuals – who face many of the same issues (and more!) in industry as cisgendered women – uneasy. But the session that sticks out the most (and the worst) is “Men Aren’t the Enemy”, which posits:

Men don’t deliberately keep us out; it’s our job (for now) to be easily integrated into an all-male team, nonthreatening, and hyperskilled

This statement has (rightly) made many women in industry quite angry, myself included. Geek Feminism’s Timeline of Incidents catalogs an ever-growing list of sexist events across communities. People have (and will continue to) say that these exclusionary practices aren’t a “deliberate” attempt to keep women out, but anybody who has experienced the isolating chill of exclusionary behavior understands that it is harmful, whether or not it is deliberate, and it does keep women out. (Further reading: Intent is Not Magic.) The rest of the sentence suggests a path of least resistance that relies heavily on performing stereotypical gendered behavior; I’m not the only person who detects a strong whiff of victim blaming in all of it.

Many of us who have been discussing this project feel incredibly torn here: we have serious problems with some of the content on the Ladycoders site, but we also think the project has an excellent goal. There’s a lot of good advice in the session outlines as well – in particular, I liked seeing bits about “the myth of the one-page resume” and building up a public code repository on a site like GitHub. There’s also emphasis on practicing whiteboard exercises and mock technical interviews. Since this project is just getting off the ground – the seminar hasn’t happened yet – we don’t know how the problematic stuff in the session outlines will translate to in-person education; the only information we can go from is what’s provided by the website and the Kickstarter. The problematic content inspires far more questions than answers.

Some of us are also torn because of a discussion a few weeks ago following a post called “The Dark Side of Geek Feminism”; Skud’s post summarizes the scope of the discussion quite well. We’re still grappling with some difficult questions: if our feminism really isn’t about setting rules or hoops to jump through, how do we skillfully engage with problematic content? How do we take a stance on something when we all come from different perspectives, opinions, and backgrounds? How do we call out ignorant or hurtful statements while still showing compassion? While Ladycoders doesn’t explicitly state that it’s a feminist project, its goals (to increase the participation and representation of women in industry) match those of [geek] feminists. As individuals, we all draw our lines in different places when it comes to problematic content and behavior.

I can only speak for myself here. I think the problematic content in the Ladycoders outline has the potential to do tremendous harm, and ultimately drive women away from industry by delivering misleading information. That’s my beef with it.

Circling back to Grace Hopper here for a moment, I had the same feeling when I came out of Sheryl Sandberg’s keynote address. As I’ve said before, I really have trouble with Sandberg’s “inspiring” speeches to women because she places so much emphasis on women’s ambition and hard work, as if every obstacle constructed by institutional sexism can be overcome just by working a little harder or shedding a bit more blood. As a young person it is enormously empowering to feel like what’s possible is solely within the realm of one’s imagination and willpower. And there is some truth to that. But there are also so many systems at play, and when it comes to being a minority in any field, those systems can work very strongly against us.

The problem with not acknowledging the oppressive influence of the system in one’s approach is that it can be utterly heartbreaking once the system gets in the way. If I’ve been taught that my success in industry just comes down to my agreeability, my ambition, my skillfulness in not threatening my male peers – what happens when the problems that such behavior meant to solve arise anyhow? How do I cope in that situation – do I blame myself? Do I decide I’m just not cut out for this, and quit? What information could I have received about these inevitable obstacles that could have fostered resilience?

This is what I’m worried about when I hear Sandberg speak, or read about Ladycoders encouraging me to do all the work to integrate with my all-male team. It just doesn’t match up with the reality that I’ve lived. In fact, it would require an inhuman amount of energy and the emotional fortitude of a robot. One approach does not fit all situations.

I’d like to pivot back to the advice I gave that college student back at GHC, and some general sentiments about my own experience with interviewing and otherwise getting by in industry. There’s a lot we can do as developers to better ourselves – to make ourselves better candidates for a job, and outstanding employees once we’re on the job. But the onus shouldn’t just be on us. The tech industry is very young, and there are a lot of things it’s not doing well either. I have major criticisms about the general trend of software companies hiring for a very specific set of skills and experience rather than aptitude, and being unwilling to invest significant resources in training: I firmly believe this is damaging for all parties, and allows for the continued glorification of the stereotypical hacker type who spends all of their time on code, disadvantaging developers who prefer more balance. Peter Cappelli has been writing some great pieces about the skills gap myth that tie into his book “Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It“. It encourages me to see a voice putting pressure on institutions instead of individuals for once. Needless to say, I have the same opinions about organizations with gender diversity issues: it is the organization’s job to proactively make themselves appealing to people of all identities; if the responsibility has been placed on the token person in that diverse group to point out what you’re doing wrong, you’re not doing it right. We absolutely need to work on improving ourselves as candidates and employees, but the pressure on systems and institutions to fix themselves up could be so much stronger, and that’s where my passion lies.

Personally, I love talking about interviews and general career advice. There’s a lot of things I’ve gotten right and many more I’ve gotten wrong. I’m an excellent interviewer, and getting a job has never been difficult for me. I’ve still had some interviews that I would have conducted differently if given the chance to do them again. On the job, things have been a bit more challenging for me – I’ve spent more time as a “new employee” than not, and one of the things I’ve learned is that I’m not very good at being “new”. I’m not very good at asking lots of questions in lieu of reading documentation, motivating myself to jump into a foreign code base, or warming up to a new development team. I’d like to be a more focused and organized worker, and I’d like to spend more time on skill development than I currently do. So I have plenty that I’m still working on.

I asked some other female developers about their experiences interviewing women, and learned some interesting things. I want to wrap this up by passing on some advice I think is useful and trends women-or-minority-specific, but a bit more constructive than the problematic bits in the Ladycoders outline.

  • Learn about terms like Impostor Syndrome, Stereotype Threat, and microaggressions as soon as possible. It’s normal to encounter one, if not all, of these at some point. Being able to put a name to that uncomfortable feeling will help you feel less alone in your experience, and will help you communicate your needs more precisely.
  • The most important component of a technical interview is being able to problem-solve on your feet. Try doing this with both easy and hard problems; examine the way you react when you don’t know how to solve a problem, and consider more constructive ways to engage with it. Asking for clarification or additional information is totally okay. Give as much information as possible while you’re thinking through an answer; it’s okay to say “I know this isn’t the optimal solution, but here’s the first thing that comes to mind.” Technical interviews can actually be a whole lot of fun once you get the hang of these things.
  • One of the benefits of switching jobs regularly is more frequent interview experience. If you’re looking for a new job after a few years away from interviewing, realize that you’ll probably be a bit less polished. Take some time to review potential interview questions and practice with a friend. I know some people that regularly interview between jobs even if they aren’t actually looking; this doesn’t work for everybody, but it does help the practice stay fresh.
  • Appearance and personality mean so much less during a technical interview than they do any other interview, and this can be disorienting for people who have been trained on non-technical interviews. I typically interview in jeans and a sweater (and also a nose ring and candy-colored hair – YMMV, but this hasn’t been a problem for me), and I incorporate things like my motivations and values into my narrative about my career history, technologies I’ve worked on, etc. With time, you’ll find ways to make responses to questions about past experience both informative and personally insightful.
  • Yes, women tend to express less confidence and more doubt in their abilities. I am absolutely one of those folks. At the same time, I’ve found most interviewers find it refreshing that I’m admitting what I don’t know instead of pretending that I have everything figured out, since so many other interviews can feel like trying to smoke out the candidates who are faking their expertise (an unfortunate side effect of this industry’s stereotypically hyper-masculine culture: braggadocio). I try to reframe my deficits in a positive way: “I haven’t worked with that – but I’d like to learn it,” or “That’s not in my skillset, but given my experience with x, I’m sure I’ll pick it up in no time.” There is a way to be honest about one’s limitations while avoiding self-deprecation.
  • Being personable in a technical interview is really about showing excitement and passion for a particular technical topic or field of study; figure out what you’re enthusiastic about ahead of time and feeling engaged with your interviewer will be a lot easier. When you’re researching the company you’re interviewing, what aspects of their work seem the most interesting to you?
  • Interviews are a two-way street. You are always interviewing the company, too. If they do something that doesn’t impress you, that’s important data and shouldn’t be ignored. Don’t be so fixated on your own performance that you miss warning signs. Think about what you’ve liked and didn’t like about past jobs you’ve worked, and questions you could have asked to get information about those components of the job in the interview. Sometimes your mind will go blank when an interviewer asks if you have any questions – if you know this happens to you, come with a list!
  • Curate your online presence. If you have a unique-to-the-Internet full name like me, this is a lesson you learned a long time ago – we of the unique names are really easy to find on Google (right down to the Tamagotchi haiku I wrote as a 13-year-old that wasn’t really a haiku). Make sure you have a web presence that conveys an accurate picture of who you are both as a developer and an individual. Personally, it’s important to me that my web presence is authentic and not sterile – think of how you want to present yourself to someone doing a web search on your name in a variety of career contexts (future employer, future coworker, collaborator on an open source project, peer in your local tech community, etc.), and decide what you can do to get yourself to that point. (This was a big topic at GHC and I think it’s going to become increasingly important. You can use your presence on the Internet to your advantage!)
  • Talking about past negative experiences is a tricky road, but if you avoid the issue altogether in interviews, don’t be surprised if those issues re-emerge after you get the job. This is the one I’m doing the most work with right now. I’ve been harassed and bullied on the job, so now I ask about company harassment policies in interviews; I’ve had neglectful managers and a void of performance feedback, so I ask about the frequency of performance reviews, one-on-one meetings, and the organization’s managerial philosophy. The big one that I’ve just started doing – and it scares me a lot – is being public about my priorities as a geek feminist and my interest in improving experiences for minorities in tech while I’m in an interview. I’ve realized that I’m no longer willing to work for companies that haven’t even done the most basic research on the issues facing women in tech, so if they react poorly to my disclosure, that’s important data. Yes, this has terrified me, but so far it’s led to positive results.  I’m still figuring out the right questions to ask in that department, and I’m learning as I go.

Want to read more on this topic? Here are some links that have emerged while my peers have been discussing Ladycoders and constructive career advice for tech minorities.

Screenshot of computer program code

Quick hit: BlackGirlsCODE’s 2012 Summer of Code

Signal boosting this in a separate post rather than a linkspam, since the fundraising deadline is soon:

“A child educated only at school is an uneducated child”

Today there is a huge epidemic taking place across America. In low-income neighborhoods across the country thousands of children of color are not being offered high-quality education. There is a digital divide separating our country and our children are stuck in the middle. It is said by 2015 (3 years from now) 80% of new jobs will require a technical degree:

IT’S TIME TO PREPARE OUR CHILDREN FOR THE FUTURE!

On June 17th, 2012, BlackGirlsCODE (BGC) will launch our Summer of CODE Campaign. Our goal is to teach computer programming to more than 300 boys and girls from underrepresented communities, in 90 days, in more than 7 cities across the United States. We are launching this BGC Summer of CODE Campaign to emphasize the importance of technology education and achievement for our next generation of citizens. We are especially focused on giving girls from African American, Latino, and Native American communities the opportunity to learn valuable tech skills and to plant a seed that may “Change the Face” of the future of tech!

They are aiming to raise $18 500. As of now, with 42 hours left in the fundraising campaign, they have raised $9 915.

Donate to the Summer of CODE via Indiegogo.

Wall of Spam, by freezelight on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Flying by the seat of my linkspam (29th July, 2011)

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the “geekfeminism” tag on delicious, freelish.us or pinboard.in or the “#geekfeminism” tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.